"...one of the essentials of Christianity; its constant and relentless reference to the eternal realm, which lies beyond the world of sin and which beckons every Christian in every age to the ever-present end of the world that is ushered in by the inevitability of individual death."
Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna, Introduction to Gregory the Great's Homilies on the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel
Melissa and I are in our early 50s, and many insurance and medical folks tell us that the odds of death go waaaaay up after that mid century milestone.
We get reminders of that more often now, with news that another dear person has died.
Just got another one by email today:
Dear Tim: Don't know if you heard but Shirley Shinn died yesterday. She had a rough last 3-4 months with what was eventually diagnosed as a recurrence of cancer. Please remember Shirley in your intentions this week. She will have a Requiem Eucharist at Prince of Peace this Friday at 4pm. She loved you dearly and I know she still appreciates your prayers and love.
I appreciate the way her priest said this. Indeed, Shirley Shinn is in the presence of God, where those who are His own regain the freedom and power to appreciate absolutely all things.
Shirley was part of the Anglo Catholic parish where Melissa and I met and married. I still get a laugh when I view our wedding video, and Shirley rolls right with the camera man getting in her face and wishes us all the Biblical Greek terms for love: "Agape, filias and especially EROS."
I remember blessing the cross that Shirley always wore. It was made from the gold of her and her late husband Bob's wedding rings. That still moves my heart - her reverent tribute to the holiness of marriage and an expression of married love in the face of the cynical, empty culture of "Sex in the City" and assorted "Desperate" and "Real" housewife shows.
She was a good Anglo Catholic blend of deep devotion and eccentricity. Our most recent emails, phone calls and Facebook messages were times of sincere prayer mixed with her gripes about arcane sacristy gaffes by new altar guild members and assorted clergy... and I have to admit she had me digging out some dusty reference books to figure out that she was probably right (at least in some age of church history).
Death is a constant reminder that all in this world is impermanent. A secular person will say, "All that Christian talk of eternal life is just a myth to dull the grief," but I don't buy for a minute the secular myths about "leaving a legacy of good deeds" or "one's good name carrying on" - those are lofty goals but plenty of wonderful people die in anonymity, without leaving any stuff that will be remembered for very long - and plenty of evil people remain famous and leave their names all over stuff.
As orthodox, traditional Christianity understands, death is our own dress rehearsal for what the whole creation faces: an apocalypse, the revelation of what is eternal and what is finite. The email about Shirley's death glowed with the word for that divine virtue that is eternal: love. She saw that love in the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, and devoted herself to it through the frequent sacrament of his body and blood. She practiced it by loving frequently unlovable people like yours truly. And I believe that she has awakened to experience it perfectly and forever, seeing Christ face to face and hearing his words of welcome,
"Well done, good and faithful servant!"